A basic difference between driving in India and driving in the US: in the latter, one drives cautiously, if not suspiciously, as if all the other drivers on the road are imbeciles, unable to make responsible driving decisions for themselves, and are perceived as immediate threats to the self. This is euphemistically called “defensive driving,” but we should really call a spade by what it is: driving amidst a bunch of dumb asses. Often times this leads to internalized anger directed towards others on the road who act irratically and unpredictably (i.e. road rage), but on the whole it seems to produce obedient and passive drivers. People stay within their lanes and would be shocked, if not outraged, to see another driver cross lines that are not supposed to be crossed, or go the wrong direction on a one-way street, or disobey a traffic sign or light.
In India, on the other hand, people cannot afford to drive defensively, nor do they restrict themselves to lines. In fact, quite the opposite is the case. One’s strategy on the road must be offensive, as if one’s very survival were at stake, and likewise, the driver must assume that everyone else is operating by a similar protocol. On the Indian road, it is every car for itself, and in order to go anywhere, in order to plow through the traffic jams where there are not only cars and trucks, but mopeds and bikes, wagons and carts, rickshaws and three-wheelers, not to mention pedestrians and animals, and in order to literally carve out pathways in this thick mass of moving vehicles and bodies, one must assume that the other drivers on the road are not only responsible for themselves, but are equally skilled at what they are doing, ready to move and adjust that crucial inch at that crucial second. Though this second way of driving leads to chaotic scenes, thousands of near collisions every minute (but not nearly as many actual collisions as one would expect), and maddening orchestras of car and truck horns blasting endlessly, road rage does not appear to be such a problem. Perhaps one cannot afford to get angry if one is so busy strategizing how not to get hit by the multitude of diverse vehicles on the road. This also has an effect on dealing with the unexpected. When driving on a one-way road, to see another car coming in your direction would not arouse surprise or antipathy, it would merely necessitate moving out of the way so that the bloody car doesn’t hit you, and then proceeding merrily on your way. In India, lines on the road are taken as suggestions, not rules, and are rarely heeded.
We could, of course, draw out the social implications of this, and think about the broader cultural differences between Indians and Americans from this basic observation, but I’ll leave that to the anthropologists. I merely relate this because it brings me to an idea about urbanism that applies to both India and the U.S., in fact, it is a mode of thinking that I think we all need to take seriously.
Krishan Kumar, like many people I meet in India, frequently asks me questions about America, wondering if and how things are different there, usually as a means for understanding why things are so bad in India. In this instance, we were talking about why the roads are so crazy in India, and why drivers don't stick to their respective lanes. It is not uncommon in India to see the car in front of you simply driving right on the dividing line, rather than choosing a particular lane and staying in-between the lines. The reason why people don’t stay in their lanes, Krishan tells me in Hindi, as he himself maintains a position between two lanes with the middle of the car running right over the white line, is because of police and corruption. The police do not enforce the rules, and even when they do, it is easy to bribe them. “This is why India is behind the U.S.,” he says, “this is the problem with our country.”
And in many ways he is right. Although the more politically attuned of us will point out that corruption works in different ways, and that what lobbyists and special interest groups do in Washington D.C. is more a difference in degree than a difference in kind, the amount of naked police corruption is a troubling reality in India. For the foreigner, as well as for the native, this leads to frustration and a feeling that the police and the state have little or no legitimacy.
But I would also pause for a moment and allow a different line of thinking here. What if the lack of police enforcement is, in a certain sense, a boon for Indian political life? What if it creates the conditions of possibility for a more liberated (but not liberal) mode of urbanism?
In a recent issue of the Indian journal Civil Society, the former mayor of Bogota, Enrique Penalosa, wrote a piece on the future of the Asian city, arguing that what Asian cities (particularly in China and India) need to do is not mindlessly mimic American urban models, but instead learn from the mistakes of American, European, and Latin American cities, and use these lessons to design eco-friendly, humane cities that are people-centered, not car-centered. Indeed, urban development in India since the 1950’s has taken the worst lessons from the American models (suburban sprawls, high rise construction, flyovers and highway systems that violently partition urban space, often creating separate and unequal class-based zoning, privatization of transportation and infrastructure, etc.). Asian cities, Penalosa points out, have a unique potential to design humane cities of joy, a concept geared towards the future construction of pedestrian and public spaces inside cities, including plentiful green parks, wide pavements and bike lanes to provide alternatives to motorized-transportation. He argues that " in the DNA of Asian cities and Asian life there is a pedestrian life that still lingers. Until recently and often even toady, Asian cities had a pedestrian-only street network hundreds of kilometers long where human life and community relations thrived” (Sept.-Oct. 2008, 10). In the wealthy countries, and particularly in the States, something like vehicular diversity (the simultaneity of different types of vehicles, different speeds and modes of transportation within the same urban transportation network) would be more a matter of future-oriented design, if not utopic thinking. In India, and much of the developing world, it is already a present-day reality. Rather than perceiving this to be a sign of backwardness, Penalosa suggests, this should be embraced as something to design future cities around. Cities that embrace an inherited tradition of vehicular diversity by design can become deeply and substantively democratic, and not just procedurally so. Democracy, for Penalosa, implies the production of happiness and joy across the diverse classes and groups in political and social life, and “among our happiness needs,” he points out, “are walking, being with people and not feeling inferior.” The kind of democratic urbanism that Penalosa advocates is one that strives for two basic kinds of equality: “quality of life equality and the implementation of that basic democratic principle which says that public good prevails over private interest." (9)
Among the practical suggestions that Penalosa puts forth is that “road space should be allocated first to public transport and only if there is enough space left, to private cars.” Indeed, Gurgaon is a sprawling suburb of Delhi that desperately could have heeded this advice. Gurgaon was developed as a “satellite city” of Delhi in 1990. Led almost exclusively by private real estate developers, notably Delhi Land and Finance (DLF), Gurgaon transformed from a dusty village and rural space into the bustling and sprawling “millennium city” that it is today. What these private developers did was buy up land from farmers on the cheap, through the Haryana Urban Development Authority, quickly construct high-end apartment towers, office buildings and shopping malls, and just as quickly find tenants to pay exorbitant rents. What they forgot about in the process was the simple fact that without basic urban infrastructure, all of these disconnected zones of wealth, privilege, and accumulation are rendered increasingly moot.
Indeed, just last week, the Hindustan Times put together a week-long series on the infrastructural problems haunting Gurgaon, suggesting that the title “millenium city” is more hype than reality. The series also provided a public space to vent for disgruntled residents and businesses that pay astronomical prices in Gurgaon, but get next to no civic amenities. If Gurgaon still manages to function as a global capitalist node of production, accumulation, and consumption, housing a transnational class of consumers and capitalists alike, it is at enormous cost to the resources of this otherwise barren and desolate landscape. DLF spaces suck up the already scarce supplies of energy, and are mostly backed up by generators, so that when electricity gets cut off, they are still able to run. In addition, since the Haryana state government has itself provided little urban infrastructure for its cherished global city, these real estate developers construct their own private waste treatment and water lines, disconnected from the city around them. This leads to their sucking up valuable resources disproportionate to the other, less wealthy and less powerful inhabitants of the city. It is already estimated that Gurgaon is ten years away from depleting its water resources completely. To this day it has no adequate sewage treatment facility, nor any garbage disposal system, so that sewage waste and trash pile up in corners and abandoned fields across the city. Roads are crumbling and the public sector is lax in fixing the mess now that the private sector has proven unwilling and unable to provide a larger infrastructure for the city. Gurgaon is a classic example of what goes wrong when private interests are given almost exclusive power to rule over what are irreducibly public affairs. More than anything else, Gurgaon’s urban development story puts to death the neoliberal myth that intensive building and infrastructure in select private zones inevitably leads to the complementary development of surrounding areas.
But that is not all, there is next to no public transportation in Gurgaon. To get anywhere beyond your immediate neighborhood, you need a car. Indeed, Gurgaon was designed with car-owners in mind, and one could presume, no one else. Car-owners in India, we must remember, are in the small minority. “They live in private spaces and they sort of jump between them in capsules called cars,” Penalosa sardonically points out, “They drive everywhere. They drive out of their parking at home to their parking space at work, then to the parking at a shopping mall, perhaps to the parking at a supermarket and then to the country club parking lot. Months can go by without them walking a few blocks of their city streets” (9). Designed for privatized consumer-citizens, it is not surprising that cities like Gurgaon pay little attention to public transportation needs. In addition to a dearth of public transport, there are no sidewalks, though the majority of workers in Gurgaon must walk to work (because they cannot afford cars). As Penalosa powerfully argues, “this also reflects lack of democracy in unequal societies where higher income car-owning citizens are more important that poorer ones who walk or ride bicycles” (11).
India, there are many more pedestrians and bicyclists than cars, and this will be the case for many years to come. Unfortunately, there are neither bike lanes nor pedestrian side walks in cities like Gurgaon. Still, people manage to survive, and transport themselves using diverse methods, whether it is cramming 10 people into a rickety little three-wheel auto-rickshaw, riding a bike or a moped or even a cow-drawn cart. Such vehicular diversity should be seen as a strength, rather than as a sign of backwardness. What urban planners in India and across the world need to design are cities that can not only accommodate diverse modes of life, providing livable space for all classes of urban dwellers, but also diverse modes of transportation that are already present and yet unappreciated. Such designs are not only humane and democratic, but are in fact necessary in order to generate political, economic and ecological sustainability.